3D printed future – did you think about it ?



The Time to Think About the 3D Printed Future Is Now

3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, is likely to revolutionize business in the next several years. Often dismissed in the popular mindset as a tool for home-based “makers” of toys and trinkets, the technology is gaining momentum in large-scale industry. Already it has moved well beyond prototyping and, as I explain in a new HBR article, it will increasingly be used to produce high-volume parts and products in several industries.

Since I prepared that article, new developments have only strengthened the case for a 3-D future – and heightened the urgency for management teams to adjust their strategies. Impressive next-generation technologies are overcoming the last generation’s drawbacks while adding new capabilities. This progress will speed up adoption and propel more experimentation and practical application. What was a niche technique is morphing into a broad-based movement driven by multiple technologies and many kinds of companies.

Many of the new developments have to do with broadening the science underpinning additive manufacturing. Early generations drew from physics and engineering. The new technologies are expanding the playbook into chemistry.Continuous light interface production, or CLIP, uses chemical reactions to better control the transformation of liquids into solids. Instead of slowly putting down a layer of material and then curing it, CLIP creates a monolithic product in what is essentially a continuous process. CLIP greatly speeds up production and boosts the material strength of the final product by cutting down on the problems created by layers. The inventors, who publicly announced this new approach in March, say they were inspired by the film “Terminator 2”  – specifically the scene where a robot reshapes itself after having melted into a puddle.

Another promising development is multi-jet fusion. This technology starts with a plastic or metal powder, but instead of solidifying the powder with a laser, it uses chemicals sprayed from 30,000 tiny nozzles at a rate of 350 million dots per second. These chemicals speed the shaping and hardening of the powder by a UV lamp. But importantly, in the future, the chemicals can also change the powdered material’s properties – adding color, elasticity, bacteria-resistance, hardness, and texture to the final product. And because the high-tech nozzles spray so quickly and precisely, the curing takes only a tenth of the time of existing 3D processes. Typical of next generation advances, it integrates a number of techniques that had been used separately.

Even more intriguing, though probably still years away, is what MIT calls 4-D printing, where the fourth dimension is time. These are objects embedded with “memory materials” that react to light or heat to form new shapes after delivery to the consumer. Imagine a piece of furniture that arrives flat, but then reshapes itself into a chair when exposed to sunlight.

And these are just the general-purpose technologies. Also emerging isxerographic micro-assembly, which promises to greatly improve computer chip manufacture by implanting components of chips with electrical charges and putting them in a highly conductive fluid. Electrical fields can then assemble these “chiplets” into full chips with greater capabilities and fewer defects than conventional chip production. Likewise in bio-printing, researchers are adding magnetic nanoparticles to living cells and then using magnetic fields to assemble the cells into artificial tumors and functioning tissues.

Big players are involved now in pushing additive manufacturing to the next level. Early phases of 3D printing involved startup companies with investments in the low seven digits. Stratasys and 3D Systems grew into industry leaders with approximately $1 billion in revenues each. Now we’re seeing much bigger stakes. Hewlett-Packard developed multi-jet fusion, leveraging its expertise in printer head technology to leapfrog the industry. CLIP comes from a startup,Carbon3D, but one with $40 million in funding from a VC group led by mainstay Sequoia Capital. MIT is investing heavily in 4-D printing. Xerox, which invented xerographic micro-assembly, had been testing the waters with an investment in startup 3D Systems. Once it saw the potential, it launched a major internal program leveraging many facets of its electronics expertise as well.

These organizations are putting their reputations as well as major capital investments on the line, and have a lot to lose if these technologies turn out to be vaporware. Carbon3D promises to release its first commercial printer by December of this year, while HP has a target date of January 2016.

The market is taking these claims seriously, as well. Both 3D Systems and Stratasys have seen their stock prices slide in recent months, in part because the market is worried about the next generation of technologies and the resources that giants like HP are putting behind them. Realizing they can’t spend like the giants, the early leaders have started shifting their R&D away from hardware and moving toward software, services, and consulting. The 3D printing ecosystem is still very much in flux.

In the midst of all this change, new strategies are required. Even if some of these new technologies fail to pan out, there’s so much activity going on, so much money and creativity now being applied, that we can safely expect the pace of additive manufacturing to pick up. That has two major implications for strategists. One is that timelines based on earlier generations of additive manufacturing may be too conservative. If the new technologies dramatically boost the speed and strength of 3D printing, then adoption rates will jump. The cost advantage of conventional “subtractive” manufacturing will disappear sooner than expected. The new capabilities to customize products will also be highly attractive. Digital platforms that coordinate 3D printing ecosystems will emerge sooner. Instead of moving incrementally to adopt 3D techniques into their organization, companies may need to pick up the pace.

Second, strategists will have to consider not only which technology to run with, but also whether to collaborate with these next generation pioneers. By partnering with, say, HP or Carbon3D, companies stand to gain earlier access. But they may also increase the risk if their chosen technology fails to meet its promise on schedule. Working with current 3D technologies, such as extrusion-, stereolithographic- and sintering-based methods has better odds but a smaller payoff. Such decisions could lead to internal strife between converts to each camp.  Companies could invest in both, but then they face the challenge of timing the switch over to the next generation, and the complexity of transitioning people and the organization from one to another, as well as the specter of writing off investments before they have been recaptured.

All of this is on top of the new level of complexity that 3D printing has brought to manufacturing generally.  What’s the proper mix of traditional “subtractive” methods with the new additive approaches. How much risk should a firm take on now, versus what’s the risk if you wait? And all of this raises the possibility of reshoring some operations, affecting established relationships with host governments and local unions.

Strategists, fasten your seat belts for a fun but bumpy ride.  Here’s where you show what you’re made of.


by Richard D’Aveni | MAY 06, 2015


Rise of the 3D printing machines


Rise of the 3D printing machines

‘Terminator’ technology threatens manufacturing pioneers.

From a red puddle of liquid plastic, a three-dimensional sphere of connected hexagons and pentagons begins to rise, taking only six minutes to be lifted by mechanical arm into its final geometric form.

It is a phenomenon known as “continuous liquid interface production”, and has been developed by Carbon3D — a Silicon Valley start-up backed by technology investment group Sequoia Capital. But while it was inspired by a scene from the science fiction film Terminator 2, when the T-1000 android rises from a small pool of metallic liquid, the new technique is very much a reality — and set to shake up the 3D printing industry by making the process of forming plastic objects up to 100 times faster.

Since 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, was pioneered in the 1980s, it has been widely expected to revolutionise the manufacturing of complex components, from medical implants to jet engine parts. But growing competition from start-ups, such as Carbon3D, and household names such as HP, is now putting pressure on the tech companies that developed the fledgling industry.

Two of the largest 3D printing companies, US-based 3D Systems and Israel’s Stratasys, are already finding that investors are questioning their continued dominance. 3D Systems shares have fallen 71 per cent, from a high of $96 at the start of 2014 to $28 today. Similarly, Stratasys’s Nasdaq-traded shares are down 61 per cent over the same period, from a high of $136 to $56.

“There’s a possibility that you look at the current crop of public 3D printing companies and they will be like the computer companies of the 1980s — brands that are footnotes in computer history,” warns Carl Bass, chief executive officer atAutodesk, the US-listed software company.

“It’s not obvious that being first to market really means you lead forever.”

Both 3D Systems and Stratasys, as well as their smaller rivals ExOne, Arcam and Voxeljet, have endured a tough 15 months, in which their revenue growth has failed to live up to the hype.

Pieter Busscher, manager of the RobecoSAM Smart Materials fund, says they failed to live up to their stock market valuations. “Essentially, what we saw up until 2014 was a bit of a bubble in the works. Multiples at the end of 2013 were anywhere between 60-100 times earnings.”

Slower than expected revenue growth also coincided with a need to spend more to sustain their competitive positions, notes Scott Schmitz, an analyst at Morgan Stanley.

Over the past three quarters, organic revenue growth at 3D Systems has been between 7-12 per cent, well below guidance of 30 per cent. Stratasys achieved a better organic growth rate of 31 per cent in 2014.

However, it unveiled an accelerated investment plan that is likely to keep operating margins in the 10-14 per cent range for the next couple of years, compared with its own long-term guidance of 18-23 per cent, Mr Schmitz points out.

Nevertheless, these margins and growth rates have still been enough to attract the attention of conventional printing groups.Hewlett-Packard has revealed plans to enter the sector in 2016, with a 3D printer that it claims will be faster and cheaper than existing machines.

Pete Basiliere, an analyst at consultancy Gartner, believes HP is not the only household name eyeing up the space. “By the end of 2016 we’ll see at least three of the big printer makers in the market with their own branded 3D printer,” he predicts.

But with at least a year until these rival products appear, competitors have time to respond, Mr Schmitz says. “HP needs to develop new go-to-market channels as 3D printers target a different audience than PCs and office printers.”

3D Systems and Stratasys have so far tried to maintain their competitive position by buying up other companies, making about 60 acquisitions between them in the past five years — including providers of 3D printing materials, hardware and software. In 2013, Stratasys bought MakerBot, a New York start-up that produces cheap, easy-to-use 3D printers, for about $403m, although it has since booked a $100m impairment charge following disappointing performance.

Both companies require the use of their own materials with their printers, but Weston Twigg, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities, suggests that in future there will be separate specialists selling printers, software and materials.

He points to Germany’s SLM Solutions, which focuses on making metal printers and partners with various materials companies. It increased its unit orders by 138 per cent in 2014, and its revenue by 56 per cent. Conversely, software provider Autodesk is adopting an open approach by teaming up with materials and printer companies.

Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Associates, a 3D printing consultancy, agrees that it will become increasingly difficult for companies to compete with products that are “closed and locked to prevent third-party products and solutions”.

However, the big incumbents will be reluctant to open up their business models while they can achieve such high profit margins on materials sales. In 2014, 3D Systems achieved a margin of 73 per cent on materials, compared with 36 per cent for its printers.

And demand for 3D printing materials is only going to rise. Gartner expects worldwide shipments of 3D printers to reach 217,350 units in 2015, and then take off to 2.3m by 2018.


by Tanya Powley, Manufacturing Correspondent | April 9, 2015 11:55 am